CIFF 2010: Waste Land (2010)

Director: Lucy Walker

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Going green has become a fad again in the United States. Since we produce 30 percent of the world’s solid waste, making our country the No. 1 garbage generator on the planet, it would be great if this newest marketing scheme could signal sincere progress, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. One country that isn’t even among the top 30 nations in solid-waste generation, but has a recycling industry that has become much more high profile is Brazil. This heightened interest can be traced directly to Vik Muniz, a fine-art photographer who likes to compose subjects out of mixed materials (for example, covering parts of photos with sugar and then rephotographing them) and who is the guiding force behind the project chronicled in Waste Land. Muniz embarked on a two-year project at Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho dump, the largest landfill in the world, where he chose several “pickers” to photograph and then created his mixed-media photos using materials from the dump itself. In the process, both he and his subjects were changed for the better.

Pickers do what almost no environmentalist would conceive of doing—they wait for dump trucks to deposit their loads, dig through the garbage for recyclable materials, and sell it by weight to recycling plants that send their trucks to the dump to haul the materials away. The job is, obviously, dirty and physically demanding. It can be dangerous—Tiao, a young, idealistic picker, had a dump truck hatch fall on him, breaking three limbs and causing gaping wounds that are now deep scars. The work can also be soul-wrenching—Suelem, a mother of two who has been picking at Gramacho since the age of 7, vomited when she found a dead baby among the garbage. Indeed, dead bodies aren’t all that unusual at Jardim Gramacho, which is surrounded by rival gangs that go to war periodically. The presence of vultures at Jardim Gramacho very graphically emphasizes that pickers work among mortal remains of all kinds. And yet these people prefer this work to the only other choices open to them—selling drugs or becoming prostitutes.

Muniz, who grew up poor in São Paulo, understands the great divide in Brazilian culture. “Some people who live here really do think they’re better than other people,” he says incredulously. For his part, he is looked at askance by the pickers, who can’t understand what he’s up to. He’s not exactly sure himself what possibilities will present themselves, but he grows used to the dump’s stench quickly and begins to make friends with some of the pickers who will become his photographic models.

Valter, the elder statesman of the pickers, has been working at Jardim Gramacho for nearly 28 years. His illiteracy kept him from finding other work, but he’s proud of the fact that he is helping the environment: “If you save just one can, 99 is not 100.” Many of the pickers try to keep this upbeat frame of mind about what they have to do to survive; Zumbi, who went to work at the dump to support his family after he lost his job, says he’d be proud if his son became a picker, but hastens to add that he would rather his son were a doctor who could care for the pickers or a lawyer who could represent their labor demands. Magda exclaims that the people on the bus she takes home sniff at the odor coming off her, but she reminds herself that she’ll shower when she gets home and sleep comfortably knowing she does honest work. Only Isis is frank about how much she hates working in the dump.

The most dynamic of the pickers is Tiao. He can read, and picked Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the garbage, which gave him the idea to organize the pickers union. Muniz, perhaps inspired by Tiao’s activism, decides to photograph him in imitation of David’s painting The Death of Marat, and we watch as Tiao and Zumbi carry a discarded bathtub out of the piles of garbage and Tiao, guided by a picture of the painting, assumes the pose of the slain Marat.

Once Muniz chooses the photos he wants, he projects them many times their original size onto the floor of what looks like an airplane hangar. He purchases recyclable materials from the pickers who he instructs, using a red penlight, where to place the objects to highlight the shadows and objects in each photo. Once they are done, he takes a large-format photo of the finished product. The photos will be auctioned in London, with all proceeds used however the pickers deem fit.

An interesting conversation takes place between Muniz and his wife Janaina Tschape in which she argues that if the pickers are exposed to the good life for the short time they will be in the world spotlight and then left again to their own devices, it would ruin them and leave them worse off than before. It’s an oft-voiced concern in fish-out-of-water scenarios, but such reservations tend to be self-serving and deterministic. The pickers aren’t generally ashamed of the work they do, but they aren’t deluded. They’ve been forced by necessity and lack of skills to do what they must to survive, and some of them are not doing very well at all. Many people like them would make a go of a better opportunity if only they could catch a break (think of where the middle-aged, unemployed, homely songstress Susan Boyle is now after finally getting a chance). After hearing this conversation, it did not surprise me to learn in the “where are they now” wrap at the end of the film that Suelem, the most troubled and vulnerable picker, had dropped off the map; the rest of the pickers had gained enough motivation and self-respect to better their lives through literacy and job-training programs, some made possible by the auction funds; and Muniz and his wife had divorced.

The community Muniz and documentarian Walker focus on is tight-knit because they must be. Their lives are hard, their status close to that of untouchables, and their options very limited. But their humanity is intact, and it is a huge pleasure to see them blossom when they go to an art museum for the first time in their lives to see their photos being displayed. Times are hard in America, too, and we’re likely to see more and more people dumpster-diving for food and recyclables they can sell. Let’s remember that we are all people with the potential to become our best selves if only others will see us and give us a chance. I’m very, very glad I got the chance to meet the pickers of Jardim Gramacho and a gifted and generous artist like Vik Muniz in this uplifting, informative, and humane film. It’s one of the year’s best.

Waste Land screens Sunday, October 10, 4:30 p.m., and Monday, October 11, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    28th/09/2010 to 11:42 pm

    Isn’t it terrific? I loved this when I was fortunate enough to catch it at Hot Docs. Like all the best docs, it’s about the people – the amazing characters that they found essentially discarded in this huge dump.

    Wonderful review Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/09/2010 to 8:39 am

    Hi Bob! How are you? Yes, I was stunned by the beauty of this film and how natural its subjects were around the camera. I called it one of the best docs of the year, but the truth is that it’s one of the best films of the year of any kind.

    Damn, I’ve got to get up to Hot Docs!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 9:05 pm

    One of the year’s best, eh Marilyn?

    Well, I’m not surprised, after reading this passionate account of a film that trascends its subject to achieve a valid (and stirring) emotional focus. It reminds me of the Egyptian GARBAGE DREAMS, which likewise concerns it’s characters, but it’s clear this one is far more studied and resonant. You have framed it beautifully.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 6:00 pm

    Marilyn, I just heard some great news. This film will be opening here in Manhattan at the Angelika on October 29: SOON


  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/10/2010 to 10:48 am

    You’re going to be glad you saw it, Sam. It’s a fabulous film.

  • Bob spoke:
    23rd/11/2010 to 9:58 am

    This was a good film. It also reminds me of Garbage Dreams, only because it deals with waste pickers. Both are vastly different stories. Garbage Dreams is the struggle of a tight knit community in Egypt who are proud of their recycling expertise and who have created a very sophisticated recycling empire. Waste Land is about an artist and struggling Brazilian scavengers.

    Besides that both films are very different in their approach. The two communities that have formed around the business of waste couldn’t be more different which lends itself to two very different films. Both great are in their own right. Comparing the films further risks oversimplifying the lives and struggles of waste pickers around the world.

  • vivi spoke:
    8th/04/2011 to 2:32 am

    I don’t know how did I got here! I just saw this film and I’m thrilled! I’m brazilian, so I’m very touched.

    Great review! I agree with you about Vik’s wife. Her opinion on the conversation about changing pickers life sounds exactly how I expected from a first world person who comes to 3th world and merely watch poverty like this exotic immutable thing.

    Vik really put himself on the pickers shoes! He’s logic was perfect when he said ‘if it was me (one of the pickers), I’d love to work with this projetc’. Only in that moment I realyzed that he really had been poor.

    I respect him so much more after watching this film. Both as an artist and as a man. 🙂

    I guess my coment will never been seen. I’ts been months since the last coment. But I really had to say something right now…
    (sorry for my spelling errors!)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/04/2011 to 8:12 am

    Vivi – I saw your comment and am very grateful to have come here and give your opinion. I think this is one of the best films of last year. You have every reason to be proud as a Brazilian of your countryman Vik Muniz – he’s a great guy!

  • vivi spoke:
    9th/04/2011 to 12:40 am

    By the way, this site it’s great! 🙂

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2011 to 7:20 am

    Thank you!

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